THE impact of a $12 million investment over four years into crop research and development in the north was on full display recently when more than 70 visitors attended the Northern Australia Crop Research Alliance (NACRA) field day at Kununurra.
NACRA is the pre-eminent agricultural research organisation for the north of Australia that is privately owned and has brought together participants from government, local and international universities, agribusinesses and farmers to work together on sustainable crop options.
On show was a wide range of field trials including functional food crops such as chia, quinoa and plantago, pulse crops including chickpeas, mungbeans and soybeans and a large corn trial, evaluating varieties for both the export food and local feed markets.
Also on display was an extensive cotton research program which is forming part of a multi-year and multi-State plan to bring commercial cotton production back to the Ord Valley in WA, the Gulf Region of North Queensland and other parts of northern Australia.
The visitors were given an early glimpse at new crops in development including an oilseed species that produces super high oleic oil that has applications in the industrial, pharmaceutical and cosmetics markets and a warm-season legume species with extreme nitrogen fixing capabilities
NACRA chairman and Chia Co chief executive officer John Foss opened the field day and provided a background on the company goals for crop R&D in northern Australia.
“I sat down with David Cross, the chief executive officer of Ord District Co-op and Jim Engelke, the general manager of Kimberley Agricultural Investment in 2015 and together we recognised the potential for creating a new company and combining our resources to collectively invest in crop research in the region,” Mr Foss said.
“We formed NACRA and our cash investments, which have since been supported by successful funding grants from the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development’s (DPIRD) Grower Group Grant program and the Department of Industry, Science and Innovation which is providing us with cash and in-kind resources of approximately $12m to invest into crop research in northern Australia until 2021.
“The investment is split equally between grains and cotton and covers crop genetics, agronomics, systems and extension to the farmers in the region.
“NACRA is driving agricultural research in the north and ensuring the food and fibre production in the region is market driven, utilises the latest available technologies and is tailored to northern growing conditions.”
The participants in the research project that had representatives at the field day included CSIRO, DPIRD, Queensland government, the Federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, The University of Western Australia (UWA), The University of Sydney, King Abdullah University of Saudi Arabia and Strathmore Farms from Queensland.
“NACRA brings together farmers who have an intimate knowledge of the soils and climate of the north and agronomists, researchers and scientists that have deep, specific knowledge of the species they are working on which gives us the best chance of developing crops that will provide a profitable and sustainable farming industry,” Mr Foss said.
NACRA general manager Mark McGrath led the field walk and the first stop was the NACRA/KAUST quinoa nursery which is a collaboration with King Abdullah University (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.
The quinoa nursery is the biggest in the world and includes more than 1100 entries.
Dr Gabi Fiene, a plant breeder from Germany who works with KAUST, who is also involved in breeding salt-tolerant barley, spoke to the group and discussed the benefits of doing crop research in the Ord.
“We are involved with quinoa research in Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, China, Pakistan, Germany and Washington State in USA, but the conditions here in the Ord Valley are the best,” Dr Fiene said.
“So much water and sunshine, really skilled researchers and farmers and the soil is perfect – there is not even one rock.”
The next stop was the chia nursery that includes more than 400 entries and is developing varieties for higher yields and functional quality traits targeting the booming global health food market.
Mr McGrath said the breeding investment in chia was starting to show promising results with some selections achieving a 25 per cent yield increase over the traditional varieties.
Dr Janine Crozier, senior research fellow at UWA, who’s team has been involved in cross breeding of chia since 2014, and more recently with quinoa, was a keen visitor to the chia nursery.
“Supporting our cross-breeding work in chia and quinoa we have been using speed breeding technology using supplemental LED lighting in the glass house environment to allow rapid generation cycling,” Dr Crozier said.
“This technology allows us to significantly speed up the process of getting a new cross-bred variety with the desired traits into commercial production in the field.”
Following the chia was a look at an extensive chickpea research program.
The Ord Valley has a long history of producing the Kimberley Large Kabuli chickpeas that are highly desired by the culinary, restaurant and food service market for their size, taste and colour.
The NACRA chickpea program includes a breeding program of the Kimberley Large variety, as well as collaborations with The University of Sydney on a rhizobia trial for better nodulation and improved nitrogen fixation in the soils, and a heat tolerance trial looking at varieties and agronomic practices to increase performance of chickpeas in the warmer temperatures of northern Australia.
The final stop in the grains section of the field day included a look at a mungbean variety trial which is a collaboration with Queensland Department of Agriculture and Food (QDaF) which includes varieties from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research that are also grown in trials in Queensland, and a Loveland Technologies foliar fertiliser trial aimed at addressing nutritional deficiencies and improving yield and quality.
Also at this stop was a look at the corn variety trial that is assessing eight different varieties.
NACRA director and ORDCO chief executive officer David Cross said, “we have recently secured some large export contracts in Asia for corn and this has us really focused on the highest yielding varieties for the food markets, but at the same time the cattle feed market has really started to grow in the north so we are now assessing the best varieties to supply that market as well”.
The final part of the day was a look at the NACRA cotton project on KAI’s recently-developed Ord stage 2 property.
Dr Steve Yeates, CSIRO senior cotton research scientist and Paul Grundy, QDaF, both award-winning cotton researchers, spoke about wet season planted cotton in the north and the lessons and learnings they have brought to the NACRA project from their research both in Queensland and Brazil.
The cotton research project is spread over three separate properties and is evaluating on a commercial scale; time of sowing, agronomic management, fertiliser application and efficiencies, harvest management and alternative double crop options.
Mr Grundy said growing wet season planted cotton was a big opportunity in the north but it came with a unique set of challenges.
Mr Yeates said the Bollgard 3 technology was really what was allowing cotton to be a viable option in the north.
The NACRA focus is to refine management techniques in advance of a potential commercial scale industry.